In February I attended a live broadcast of Rigoletto from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I’ve seen the opera before but on this occasion, I was struck by a couple of the minor characters, namely Sparafucile and his sister, who between them perform murders to order. There’s a story there, I thought; particularly given that Sparafucile doesn’t appear to be all that competent. And so, six weeks later, I am editing the first draft of the novel that arose from that screening. The book begins and ends with events from the opera but inbetween we learn more about the siblings’ operation and discover their backstory, how they came to be in the business in the first place.
Here is part of the opening chapter of The Assassin and His Sister:
The hunchback wipes the hippocras from his blubbery lower lip with the back of his hand. His face is lopsided and his eyes are wont to look at two different things at the same time. One of them, the brighter, is trained on me. The other is looking now at the table, now at his goblet but its twin stays firmly fixed on my face.
I have won his attention. He is keen to hear the rest of my sales pitch. He lifts the goblet to his crooked, fleshy mouth and waves at me with his free hand, a gesture of encouragement.
I glance around. The taverna is busy but there is no one else in our corner. All the same I lower my voice. It adds to the effect, I find. Makes me sound more serious. More professional.
“You have a rival,” I say in even tones. “I can rid you of him.”
I toss back my cloak to reveal the hilt of the dagger in my belt. Just as quickly I cover it again but I am certain at least one of his eyes saw it.
“Your woman lives with you,” I continue. I have seen him many times pass the taverna and on to his humble abode on the outskirts of the Jewish ghetto. The woman in question is young and pretty. Too good for this asymmetrical toad. How does he keep a woman like that? I doubt he lavishes money on her if his current appearance and the location of their dwelling are anything to go by.
The mention of his woman makes him tense. For a moment it looks as though he will crush that goblet in his broad fist. He struggles to keep an even temper and asks me how much my services will cost.
“A trifle,” I shrug. This confuses him. I name my price lest he think I work for desserts.
His eyebrow arches like a startled caterpillar.
“When do I have to cough up?” he asks. “I don’t carry that much cash.” He sounds almost apologetic.
“Half before, the other half when the job is done.”
“The ‘job’…” he mulls this over, both amused and disgusted.
I wait. I believe I have lost him. I should never have approached him. I am about to stand up and leave him in peace with his cheap, spiced wine when he leans towards me.
“How’d you do it?” his voice rasps. Wine and spittle drip from that fat lip. I cringe. It had better not land on my sleeve.
I shrug. Perhaps I should keep these trade secrets to myself but I reckon I will lose this fish unless I can offer more enticing bait.
“Sometimes in the street,” I say casually. “A crowd is the best cover. Mostly, at my own lodgings.”
This surprises him. I really am opening up a vista into a whole new world for him. How different I must seem from the prancing ninnies at the palazzo!
“I have an accomplice,” I tell him. “My sister. She dances. She lures them back to our place. I catch them unawares. Bish, bosh! Job’s done!”
“When you say ‘bish, bosh’…?” He twirls his hand, inviting me to elaborate.
“This,” I sweep back my cape. My sword is resting against my right leg. I am left-handed, you see; he wasn’t expecting to see it there. “My best friend.”
He looks at me strangely but I can see he is still thinking about it.
“So….” I prompt, “May I be of service to you?”
He shakes his head. “Not now.” He struggles to his feet, leaning heavily on the table. Beneath his raggedy, patchwork cloak I catch a glimpse of dingy red and yellow, the fading motley of his own profession.
“Well, if you’re sure….” I refrain from assisting him. He jars the table with his great belly, knocking over the bottle of wine. The thin, watered-down liquid spills over the table. Some of it splashes on my hose before I can whip my legs out of harm’s way. I suppress a shudder.
“Maybe one day,” he nods. I get the idea he is fobbing me off but then his eye swivels and catches mine. “Soon,” he adds, and I feel better. I may have found a new client after all.
He is squeezing his uneven bulk around the table. His left foot drags across the floor.
“I’ll find you here, Mister…?”
“Sparafucile,” I supply my name without thinking. I could bite my own tongue off sometimes.
“You’re a foreigner,” he observes. “You were not born in Mantova.”
He speaks with the confidence of a fortune teller. I can see there is no point lying.
“From Borgogna,” I admit. “Is that a problem?”
His slab of a hand dismisses this notion and me with it. One eye rolls and sets itself on a course for the exit. As he waddles away, like a hayrick carried by drunken midgets, he mutters with mounting venom something about a bastard, an old bastard who has cursed him. He doesn’t stop and look over his shoulder – I don’t know if such a thing is even possible for him – but I guess he will come looking for me before long. As soon as he can get half my fee together, I expect.
I can feel the wine has seeped through my hose. They are already stained with pink blotches. That’s the third pair this week. Honestly!
I stay for another drink, casting about for more custom. There’s nothing doing. I decline an invitation to a cock fight; I prefer not to gamble my hard-earned coins away on rigged matches. Besides, Mad would murder me. Every scudo I make goes to her. I keep nothing for myself. I have to argue and plead for every new shirt and every new pair of tights. My sister thinks I’m a fool where money is concerned. In fact, my sister thinks I’m a fool, full stop.
I leave the taverna and wrap my cloak around myself against the chilly night air. The narrow streets are quiet as I wend my way home. I am known in this quarter; the cutpurses know better than to accost me. I like to think this is because of my reputation as an assassin-for-hire and not because they know my sister has already claimed all my money.
No one tangles with Mad.
Someone is tangling with Mad! I can tell there’s something afoot as I approach our house. There’s several lanterns burning and there’s crashing and banging and shouting going on. I let myself in, to find my sister, her chemise half off and her red hair loose and flowing like her head is on fire. She is doing her best to keep items of furniture between herself and a portly gentleman whose breeches are around his ankles.
She sees me come in and sends me a look that says both ‘At last!’ and ‘Where the hell have you been?’
“Oh no!” she gasps, feigning horror. “My husband!”
The gentleman glances at me with a dismissive sneer. In any tussle, he would have the weight advantage. I sweep my cape back to reveal my sword.
“Now, now!” I declaim, but I go no further into the room, “What’s all this then? Who dares to accost my sister – um, my wife?”
Mad rolls her eyes.